Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Title: Brain on Fire 
Author: Susannah Cahalan 
Genre: Non-Fiction 
Format: Kindle 
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book

Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of her difficult struggle with a mystery illness, is a fascinating exploration of medicine and survival.

Cahalan was a 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post. She had it all: youth, talent, love, and the beginning of a terrific journalism career. Then she suddenly started to act strangely. She was convinced her apartment was filled with bedbugs, the colors surrounding her became garishly bright, and she became paranoid. This started affecting her work and her personal life.

Diagnosed by one doctor as suffering the effects of too much partying, and by other doctors as suffering from a sudden and severe mental illness, it wasn’t until she started suffering violent seizures that she was hospitalized.

During the month that followed, as the doctors tried desperately to figure out exactly what was wrong with her, Cahalan became increasingly more ill.

She spent the month in the hospital, where she was occasionally caught on camera.

After more than $1,000,000 in medical tests, a very simple exam finally came up with a solution. She was suffering from a very rare malady.

After she made her slow process towards recovery, Cahalan decided to explore her lost month. There were some videos that the hospital camera captured, and they were hard for her to watch. She looks totally frightened and lost in those videos. Watching herself on video was like watching a stranger. She also interviewed her doctors and friends and family, because she has few memories of that time in the hospital.

She also may have saved some lives:

It is an excellent combination of medical mystery and reportage. I found this book fascinating and well written, and have already read it at least twice!

Book Review: All That Is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd

Title: All That Is Bitter and Sweet

Author: Ashley Judd
Genre: Memoir
Format: Kindle
Year Published: 2011
Source: I “borrowed” this Kindle book from through my local library

Ashley Judd’s memoir is not your typical movie star autobiography. She actually hardly discusses her movie career at all. It’s mostly about her traumatic childhood and her adult role as a humanitarian.

Judd discusses her extremely dysfunctional childhood (how many memoirs would there be if people had functional childhoods?) Her mother is Naomi Judd and her older sister is Wynonna Judd. Her mother and sister would sometimes leave her alone for days at a time and Ashley had to fend for herself. Sometimes she would live with her father (her parents were divorced) or with other relatives.

Ashley’s childhood was chaotic and unstable and as a child she never felt that her emotional needs were being met. If she tried to voice her feelings, she was not taken seriously. She also suffered from being molested. She felt marginalized and was made to feel that she was unworthy. From a very early age she suffered from undiagnosed depression.

She was a brilliant student at the University of Kentucky, studying French and women’s issues among other things, and became involved in many humanitarian and feminist causes. She realized that she wanted to be an actress. She also wanted to continue her involvement in humanitarian causes, but didn’t know how she could do both. It turns out that her fame as an actress opened many doors to being involved at an international level.

Her feelings of abandonment and abuse stood her in good stead as a humanitarian. Ashley’s work has focused particularly on the way women are treated around the world, especially in Third World countries. These women have no training or education and live on subsistence levels. Many end up working as sexual slaves. The treatment of women has a direct correlation to the AIDS pandemic in many countries.

Ashley has found a real purpose for her life in humanitarian works, but the bad memories stemming from childhood traumas sent Ashley spiraling into a terrible depression and she finally needed to be hospitalized. She got the help she needed, and she is now a happier person.

She is also a profoundly religious person, and has been inspired by her meetings with people such as Desmond Tutu. Ashley went on to graduate school at Harvard and is continuing her fight for the rights of the the poor and voiceless around the world.

You can also read Ashley’s blog.


Book Review: Paris in Love by Eloisa James

Title: Paris in Love  

Author: Eloisa James
Genre: Memoir  
Format: Kindle  
Year Published: 2012  
Source: I “borrowed” this Kindle book from through my local library

Paris is Love is Eloisa James’ account of the year that her family, including her husband and two children, spent in Paris. After she had a bout with cancer, James and her husband took sabbaticals from their American university jobs to live in Paris.

The book is really a collection of essays based on Facebook entries and tweets that James sent during her year abroad. Because of this, the entries are short, more like blog posts. They make perfect light reading at bedtime. I have been reading Gone Girl, but I don’t want to read that before trying to sleep!

Some readers have complained that the book is too much about the author’s reflections of her personal experiences in Paris, but isn’t that what a memoir is supposed to be? This is not a dry account of the family’s days in Paris, nor is it an academic attempt (James and her husband are professors) to understand the French way of life. They are only in Paris for a year, and they are not going to get to know people in any real depth.

It is more an account of the delights of Paris, although James is surprised by the amount of homeless people and how many bad restaurants Paris has to offer. The delightful museums and shops are thoroughly enjoyed by the entire family.

Her children are enrolled in an Italian school in Paris and their attempts to become fluent in both French and Italian, and also adjusting to much harder academic standards, are hilarious. The book is a mostly lighthearted account of an enviable time in their lives.

Book Review: Off Balance: A Memoir by Dominique Moceanu

Title: Off Balance
Author: Dominique Moceanu
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Year Published: 2012
Format: Kindle
Source: I purchased this book.

Dominique Moceanu won an Olympic gold medal along with her Magnificent 7 teammates at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She was only 14 years old, tiny (4 feet 4 inches tall!), cute and charismatic. She has a new memoir called Off Balance: A Memoir, detailing her life as an elite gymnast.

Here is Dominique at the 1996 Olympics during the team competition:

Her life on and off the gym floor has been difficult. She had complicated relationships with her family and with Bela and Marta Karolyi, her official coaches during her champion years. Her parents were Romanian immigrants, although Dominique and her sister were born in the United States. While she loved her mother and sister, her relationship with her father was fraught with complications. He was domineering and abusive.

The book opens when Dominique is an adult, and receives the biggest surprise of her life. Her parents had kept a secret from her and her sister for many years.

Dominique is bitter about many things but she also gives praise where it is due. She actually adored her first coaches, but when it became apparent by the age of 10 that Dominique was exceptionally talented – Olympic material – her father whisked her away to the Karolyi ranch in Texas. She was not at all prepared for the transition. She was shy and was used to a positive environment in the gym, but in Texas she was hopelessly confused and upset with what went on. For example, her favorite coach at the gym simply disappeared (he was fired) and no one ever mentioned him again.

Much has been made of the fact that she was miserable with the Karolyis. Actually, in this book she seems to be more mystified by their actions. After the Olympics they seemed to want to have nothing to do with her. Even though she won a gold medal, she didn’t win any individual medals and apparently that was considered a failure. Even her parents were discouraged from praising her too much.

Moceanu’s body changed rapidly after Atlanta but she still kept pursuing gymnastics – because she loved it.

She had made quite a lot of money from touring in gymnastics shows after the Olympics, which her father had put into building a huge gymnasium. Moceanu famously ran away from home as a teenager and tried to get her legal emancipation from her family. What happened after that is riveting reading.

Quite frankly, I was surprised by this book. If you read enough gymnastics message boards as I do, you would think that Dominique Moceanu was the devil, or is at the very least lying in the gutter with a needle in her arm. Many people find her hopelessly bitter because she has voiced her unhappiness in how she was treated many times. Perhaps because she was so cute and spunky while performing, some gym fans just refuse to accept how difficult her life really was?

Even before her book was released it was being compared to Jen Sey’s notorious gymnastics memoir, Chalked Up, about that author’s bitter experiences in gymnastics. But Moceanu’s book is well-written by her “co-authors” Paul and Teri Williams. The book was far more detailed than I expected, although it does slide over some of the things that happened in her career after 1996, spending more time on the events that happened in Moceanu’s personal life.

Moceanu is currently happy and productive, married to a gymnast-turned-physician, and they have two young children. Her children are involved with gymnastics, since she always loved the sport, but not the outside pressures involved with elite gymnastics.

Book Review: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Title: Autobiography of a Face
Author: Lucy Grealy
Published: 1994
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: I purchased this book. 

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is like no other book I’ve ever read.

When Lucy was nine years old, she was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. Her likelihood of survival was slim. After her surgery to remove part of her jaw, Lucy was permanently disfigured. She had to endure the cruel taunts of her classmates. She also came from a highly dysfunctional family.

Many more surgeries followed to “correct” the disfigurement but they were ultimately unsuccessful, and came at a terrible emotional cost to Grealy.

Since I knew the eventual outcome of Lucy’s story I expected to be depressed while reading it. But Lucy was so self-deprecating and had such a sly sense of humor that I enjoyed it tremendously. She wrote several other books but this book is her most lasting legacy.

This book was a huge success for Lucy, giving her the attention that she craved. Alas, it was not to last.

I highly recommend Autobiography of a Face. It is a book that you will not soon forget.

You can read more about Lucy here.

Book Review: Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

Title: Journal of a Solitude
Author: May Sarton
Year Published: 1973
Genre: Memoir, Journal
Format: Paperback
Source: I purchased this book

Journal of a Solitude is an account of a year in the life of May Sarton in the early 1970’s. It is an interesting journey into the mind and soul of a writer and poet.

Sarton was a difficult person, and subjects to bouts of intense anger and dark depression. She still managed to be amazingly prolific, however.

Sarton describes country living in New Hampshire, her attitude toward her career, and her interactions with the people around her.

It is ostensibly a very personal journal, but it is obvious that Sarton seemed to view anything she wrote as eventually publishable. If you are interested in writing or reading about the life of a creative person, you may be interested in this book.

Book Review: Something Inside of Me by Chitoka Webb

Title: Something Inside of Me
Author: Chitoka Webb
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: I picked up a copy of this book at BookExpoAmerica.

Chitoka Webb’s memoir tells the incredible story of how she rose from poverty to become a powerful businesswoman. She grew up in the projects of Nashville and faced hurdles by being African-American and a woman. Early on, Chitoka knew she was different. She learned to have a certain belief in herself – something inside of her — that has been good for her through the years.

She became a master barber and also opened up two barbershops and three health-care agencies, all before the age of thirty. She was doing exceptionally well when a devastating illness threatened everything – her work, her sight, and even her life.

How did Chitoka Webb, who almost didn’t graduate from high school, find the courage to fight poverty, drug addiction, racism, sexism, a somewhat obsessive-compulsive nature, and the agonizingly painful illness that left her blind and threatened her life? She says:

Choices are a form of power when you are faced with a situation that offers you no options. You don’t always have control of your options, but you always have control of your choices. 

 I think this book and Chitoka are truly inspirational! It is a short book, but very empowering. Chitoka believes in doing everything with “excellence.” This book should be required reading for everyone — especially all young people.

You can read about Chitoka at her website.

Book Review: Life Itself by Roger Ebert

Title: Life Itself
Author: Roger Ebert
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Memoir, Non Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: I purchased this book

Roger Ebert is a top film critic whose career and life were shattered by cancer. The various cancer treatments have left him unable to speak except through a computer. He finally started a blog to write his thoughts down, and the blog posts have eventually morphed into this book. Ebert tells the story of his life, starting with his childhood in Urbana, Illinois and his education at The University of Illinois.

He fell in love with journalism, and started writing for newspapers. He was a long-time film buff, but fell into film criticism by accident when he was assigned film reviewing by an editor.

This book is interesting when he tells about his family and his complicated relationship with Gene Siskel, his follow critic on several television shows. It is also interesting when he chats about some famous film stars and directors. Ebert also goes into detail about some of his personal friends. I’m sure that these are nice, interesting, quirky people if you know them personally, but frankly, they aren’t too interesting to read about. Sometimes “colorful” characters fall flat on the printed page, especially if you don’t know them.

I wish that there had been more stories of the famous people Roger has known, and fewer stories of his personal friends. I also wish that he had discussed his favorite films in more detail and how they affected him, but I suppose his numerous books of film criticism fill the need for that.

Ebert also talks about his alcoholism, and his many years of attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and devotion to the AA cause. He mentions that one day he just stopped drinking. He didn’t know it was his last drink at the time. I was wondering, however, when he KNEW he was an alcoholic and when he knew he had hit rock-bottom. Perhaps he didn’t have a rock-bottom. He doesn’t discuss the drinking bouts in any detail. Perhaps the drinking was part of that whole hard-drinking reporter crowd, where Ebert and his friends hung out in bars after work. His mother also developed a drinking problem later in her life.

Ebert does discuss his great love for his wife, Chaz, and he was lucky to have her when numerous cancer operations and treatments when awry. Fortunately, he had her and her extended family to give him comfort. If you are interested in films and a fan of Roger Ebert, you may well like this book. But if you aren’t, you probably won’t find it that interesting.

Book Review: Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

Title: Summer at Tiffany
Author: Marjorie Hart
Genre: Memoir, Non Fiction
Year Published: 2007
Format: Paperback
Source: I purchased this book.

Do you remember the best summer of your life?

Summer at Tiffany is Marjorie Hart‘s charming tale of working at Tiffany’s during the summer of 1945. Marjorie and her best friend Marty, naive sorority girls from the University of Iowa, are determined to spend the summer working in New York.

They somehow land jobs at Tiffany’s, the exclusive jewelry store, even though there had never been any women working on the floor. Marjorie and Marty work as pages, and spend a memorable summer as celebrities enter the store, the girls find romance, and try to survive on incredibly little money.

The summer of 1945 was a memorable one in New York, as an small airplane crashed into the Empire State Building, and World War II ended, sparking off wild celebrations in the streets of New York. New York was an innocent world of dances, Schrafft’s, and eating at the Automat.

This book is a lovely remembrance of a time long past but worth remembering.

Every week Parajunkee’s View and Alison Can Read host Follow My Book Blog Friday.

This week’s question:

In light of 11.11.11 and Veteran’s Day tell us about your favorite soldier and how he or she is saving the world. Fictional or real life.I don’t really know any soldiers personally, and since I’m a first-generation American, none of my relatives served in the American military. They may have served in either the Swedish or Danish military, though!

I’m wracking my brain to see if I can remember any soldiers from any books that I’ve read but I can’t! I tend to avoid war movies, although I do remember Saving Private Ryan! That’s it! Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (WWII) and as Forrest Gump (Vietnam). Bubba Shrimp, anyone?

Book Review: The New York Regional Mormon Single Halloween Dance: A Memoir by Elna Baker

Title: The New York Regional Mormon Single Halloween Dance: A Memoir
Author: Elna Baker
Genre: Non Fiction
Year Published: 2009
Format: Paperback
Source: I purchased this book. 
Elna Baker’s The New York Regional Mormon Single Halloween Dance: A Memoir is a refreshing look at a Mormon girl’s experiences in New York.

Baker decides to attend New York University to study acting and then become an actress. How can a virgin survive in the big bad city? Baker is continually caught between her faith in her Mormon religion and between her natural physical desires. When Elna first arrives in New York she is not only a Mormon and a virgin, but she also is quite overweight. She loses eighty pounds and enjoys the sudden attention she gets from men. She enjoys kissing but because of her religious beliefs cannot go further, even when her body tells her otherwise. It especially causes problems when she falls in love with non-Mormons.
What’s interesting about the book is that Elna has a great sense of humor and she’s not afraid of sex, actually her sense of humor is surprisingly raunchy at times! She’s not judgmental of others at all which help a great deal with living in New York.

The only problems with the book? Elna certainly seems to have no money problems (her father apparently was an executive at Boeing and the family lived all over the world), and sometimes, just like any twenty-something, she is quite self-absorbed.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

It’s a Blog Hop!

This week’s question is:

Q. If you could have dinner with your favorite book character, who would you eat with and what would you serve?

A. Probably one of my favorite fictional characters is Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Francie is always hungry in the book (actually half-starved), so any good three course meal would be wonderful for her. I know she’d like an ice-cream soda! (the first boy who asks her out on a date does so at an ice cream parlor).

You can read my review of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn here.